Seven years before winning a Minnesota congressional seat, attorney Thomas Schall was arguing a personal injury case in Fargo in 1907. During a lunch recess, he popped into a cigar shop and attempted to light his stogie with a newfangled electric lighter.
He had unknowingly plugged the 110-volt device into 220-volt outlet. The ensuing electrical shock left him blind.
But the sight-stealing mishap was merely one of myriad hardships Schall overcame on his way to Congress. First a Progressive and later a Republican, Schall won five terms in the U.S. House from 1915 to 1925 before unseating U.S. Sen. Magnus Johnson — a popular member of the Farmer-Labor party and the chamber’s only Swedish-born member ever.
“This blind senator from Minnesota deserves not to be forgotten by those who today share his passions,” retired Prof. G. Daniel Harden of Washburn University in Kansas wrote on the Front Porch Republic political science blog. “He believed in freedom for the individual and increasingly saw it endangered by the forces of concentrated power, whether by huge corporations, international banking cabals, or statist politicians.”
Born in Reed City, Mich., in 1878, Schall came from a broken family. His father abandoned his wife of 20 years and their three kids in the early 1880s, opting for a warmer climate in Missouri. Schall’s suddenly single mother moved the family to tiny Campbell, Minn., near the border with North and South Dakota in 1884. Thomas was 6 and wouldn’t start his schooling until he reached 12.
He quickly developed his academic and oratory chops and also was known as a tough boxer and baseball player. He enrolled at Hamline College in St. Paul and started his own laundry service to pay for tuition and books.
After two years at Hamline, he transferred to the University of Minnesota, finishing his degree in 1902, picking up a law degree at the St. Paul College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline School of Law) a few years later. Three years into his successful law career, the lighter accident in Fargo rendered him blind.
Within a year, he and his wife, Margaret, had burned through the money he made in his years working as an attorney. But he neither complained nor considered himself disabled.
“I have been in total darkness,” Schall once said. “I have demonstrated that I can still take care of the interests of my clients against the best legal minds of this or any other state. The heart’s the source of power. Men are as great as their hearts are great.”
His politics were hard to pigeonhole. He was friends with congressman Charles A. Lindbergh from Little Falls, father of the famed pilot. Schall called himself a Lincoln-Teddy Roosevelt Republican, but was originally elected as a member of the Bull Moose Progressive Party, representing a new 10th District that included part of Hennepin County and a block of counties north of Minneapolis.
He took on popular World War I Gen. John Pershing, telling Congress in 1919, after the war’s end, that “the only men I have heard applaud him are his puppets … Misinformation, hypocrisy and pretense are his guns. He used the country’s blood and agony to promote his own political ends.”
In a less cantankerous speech on the House floor in 1916, he thanked his fellow members for allowing a personal page to help him navigate the Capitol.
“To the blind man,” he said, “work is a pleasure and by giving me the means to do more work you have expanded my pleasure and released me from bondage and given me freedom. The hands which reach out to me and the voices which encourage me make bright the otherwise gray days and give me a renewed zest to fight the game of life.”
When Schall unseated Johnson in 1924 by fewer than 8,000 votes, the loser filed a challenge with the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections. Johnson alleged Schall had excessive campaign expenditures, made false and defamatory statements, made illicit promises of political appointments and coerced campaign contributions from bootleggers and other miscreants.
After 12 days of hearings, the committee denied the recount and dropped all charges of corruption and ethical breaches. Schall won a second term in 1930 and was gearing up for a heated race for a third term in 1935. His most likely opponent would have been Minnesota’s populist Gov. Floyd B. Olson — who would die of stomach cancer at 44 in 1936.
But in December 1935, Schall was struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking across the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Cottage City, Md. He died three days later on Dec. 22. He was 57 and left behind his wife and three children. He’s buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis — joining a who’s who of famous Minnesota politicians interred there, including Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone, Orville Freeman, Rudy Perpich, the elder Lindbergh and Floyd B. Olson.
An odd 29-second, undated video lives on, though, on YouTube — see tinyurl.com/ThomasSchall — showing Schall loading a revolver and blasting a target after an aide taps on the bull’s-eye with a long stick.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.